Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.
I'm no economist—I don't even play one on TV—but it strikes me that this curious notion, that value is something altogether apart from function, is bankrupting America; certainly it's a major factor in our latter-day collapse.
To get back on the right track, we need to revert to the idea that the most valuable things are those that have the most significant uses—and making your neighbor green with envy is not a significant use. We ought continually ask ourselves: Does this thing that I'm about to buy actually do anything? Or does it just make me feel good to own? In this framework, a toaster is more valuable than a silver pendant—any silver pendant, even one veritably encrusted with diamonds.
"But Steve...do you want to take away human striving?"
Striving for what? To have a piece of shiny metal dangling from your neck? To drive a car whose capabilities are such that it can only be enjoyed by being driven illegally?
To be clear: This is not an argument for why we should always err on the side of cheap. What I am saying is that we should at least have in mind the sorts of thoughts I'm voicing in this series of posts as we go about our conspicuously consuming lives. Think of everything you bought this past week. How many items or services were there that you would never have bought at all, if considerations extrinsic to function were not at least partly the motive force behind the purchase? This may make some of you want to reach through your internet connection and throttle me, but did you buy the can of Green Giant peas @ 79 cents or your local grocery's house brand @ 39 cents? If you went the Green Giant route, do you realize that's a difference of over 100 percent—and that if we applied the same ratios to car buying, it would be the difference between paying $25,000 and $50,000 for the very same Altima mentioned earlier? Making matters worse, if you really had to have the Green Giant peas, did you buy them at a big-box grocery like Sam's Club? Or do you prefer to sashay down the plant-lined aisles of an upscale retailer like Wegmans, where you'd likely have to tack on an additional 10 cents per can? (On a comparison basis, that puts the cost of our Altima above $57,000.) It's vanity tax on top of vanity tax, right on down the line.
How 'bout you bottled water fans. Did you really need to pay $11 or $12 a gallon—four or five times the cost of gas, which many of us bemoan daily—to drink something that runs freely from your tap? OK, not quite freely, but here's an interesting site that calculates what we might call the "Evian Effect": the annual economics of a preference for bottled water. For that matter, not only do we buy bottled waters, but we make sure to buy "the right" bottled waters, some of them at per-ounce prices more befitting a nice Chateau de Crain. (The photo above depicts Fillico water: $100 a bottle.) We do this despite the fact that (1) there is no meaningful proof that bottled water is superior to tap water, (2) most bottled water companies gravely mislead consumers about the origins of their products, and (3) in spot testing, several brands have been found to contain unacceptable levels of particulate matter as well as benzene and other carcinogens. (Apropos of which, if you're an aquaphile and you've never seen Penn & Teller's take on bottled water—part of their hilarious Showtime series, Bullshit—you need to get hold of a copy. Listen and learn.) Then there's that whole environmental thing.
Here's an interesting exercise: Sit down and take a stab at reckoning how much less you might spend on everything you buy, were it not for the trickle-down effects of these aggregated vanity taxes. Think about what else we might be able to fix—in your own lives; in society—were it not for the sums we spend as described herein. Might that not be a better way of approaching genuine self-help?
Such thoughtful, responsible consumption would pay dividends across the landscape of consumer culture. And they'd help insulate America against the house-of-cards collapses we've witnessed over the past few years. Collectively we'd have more money in the bank. We'd encourage the growth of industries that actually make things, useful things, better things (which is to say, more useful versions of existing things), things that—thanks to the added strength of the U.S. dollar almost sure to result from higher savings and lower credit reliance—could actually be exported successfully. And I submit that we'd be happier in the bargain, less worried about keeping up, more focused on enjoying the best things in life, which have always been, and remain, free.
A footnote—and not for the faint of heart. (Women especially be warned.) One other interesting thing about Tiffany is that they charge $100 for a bottle of perfume that, to my nose, smells exactly like the scent-strips they put on sanitary pads to hide the (presumably more objectionable) menstrual odor beneath. Back in the day, this was how I always knew when my two older sisters had their period: I'd smell that telltale fragrance around the house. Today it's how I know when a woman is wearing Tiffany. I kid you not. I've compared notes with other men (of my generation) and found that not a few agree with me; they may not always know the name of the perfume in question, but they'll talk about "that women's cologne that smells like sanitary pads." Horrifying but true, gals. Chew on that a while, as it were.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Read Part 1.